Air, rail connection questioned

When developer Michael Integlia Jr. decided to build two office buildings along Jefferson Boulevard in Warwick a few years ago, the location was tough to beat. More

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Focus: CONSTRUCTION, DESIGN & ARCHITECTURE

Air, rail connection questioned

IMAGE COURTESY D’AMBRA PROPERTIES
D’AMBRA PROPERTIES’ PROPOSED hotel and office complex on 8 acres along Jefferson Boulevard in Warwick would abut the intermodal-station property.
Posted 2/23/09

When developer Michael Integlia Jr. decided to build two office buildings along Jefferson Boulevard in Warwick a few years ago, the location was tough to beat.

The Jefferson Gateway, with its 120,000 square feet of Class-A space in matching brick-faced buildings, sat close to T.F. Green Airport, with a planned train station just down the road that would eventually connect Warwick to Providence and Boston.

But when it came to access to transportation, Integlia said prospective tenants only cared about one thing: Highway exit and entrance ramps were located just 200 yards away.

Space was snapped up quickly, but the proximity to the airport or the train station wasn’t much of a selling point.

“They wanted easy access to [Interstate] 95, free parking, and they wanted to be close to home,” Integlia, president of Providence-based Michael Integlia & Co., said of his tenants.

Integlia’s experience illustrates the mixed results the city of Warwick has had in reshaping the district near Green Airport and the yet-to-be-completed Warwick Intermodal Facility on Jefferson Boulevard, a busy north-south thoroughfare that long had been an industrial corridor in Warwick.

To be sure, Jefferson Boulevard has been transformed somewhat as light manufacturing plants and warehouses have given way to more office complexes and hotels in the commercial building boom of recent years.

But many expected more proposed projects along that strip and nearby Post Road to be aimed at taking advantage of the $267 million intermodal station – which is slated to be completed next year – and its easy access to the airport and the rails.

Now, as the local commercial real estate market cools, disappointed city officials are mulling changes to the way it regulates development in what is called the Warwick Station Redevelopment District.

“It’s taking advantage of a lull in activity to set ourselves up for when the economy turns around,” said Mark Carruolo, Warwick’s planning director.

Carruolo said the City Council is considering terminating the city’s agreement with a “master developer” that was tasked nine years ago with coordinating development in the station district. At the same time, city officials also may dismantle the Warwick Station Redevelopment Agency, a board assigned to oversee the district.

The master developer, Massachusetts-based Bulfinch Companies, was unsuccessful when it tried to buy dozens of parcels in the 70-acre district between Jefferson Boulevard and Post Road for what it called fair market value.

When landowners rebuffed those offers because many believed them to be too low, Bulfinch asked the redevelopment agency to take the properties by eminent domain. That never happened, and redevelopment efforts have been stalled ever since.

Also hindering progress were the delays in getting the intermodal station, first proposed in 1997 by then-Mayor Lincoln D. Chafee, off the ground. After receiving a $25 million federal grant to build a station in the district in 1998, the state decided it wanted something more ambitious, including a parking garage to house rental cars and an enclosed skywalk that would connect the station to the airport. Many grew skeptical the project would ever become reality.

Carruolo said the thinking behind hiring Bulfinch was that the master developer could assemble the land more quickly, and the company could create a cohesive district that would take advantage of the intermodal facility.

But it never worked as planned. “It seems to have hampered some of our development potential,” Carruolo said. “In the past we’ve had developers come in and we’ve referred them to our master developer. But they haven’t been able to work out a deal, and they’ve gone by the wayside.”

Now as work on the long-awaited station is under way, the city is preparing to change direction by dropping the master developer. “We’re just going to open it up to the fair-market system,” Carruolo said.

City planners also are finalizing their own master plan that would allow office, hotel, retail and residential uses. If the plan is approved, proposed projects would require the approval of the city Planning Board.

In 2005, developer Joseph Piscopio and Jefferson Hospitality LLC built the six-story, 163-room Hilton Garden Hotel at Jefferson and Kilvert Street, across the street from the intermodal-station site.

And more recently, contractor Michael D’Ambra Sr. has proposed a massive hotel and office complex on 8 acres along Jefferson Boulevard abutting the station property.

The $200 million project, featuring 500,000 square feet of offices and a 320-room hotel, has been applauded by city officials and is moving forward despite the economic downturn. Carruolo said D’Ambra met with the city earlier this month to review the plans for one of the office buildings.

D’Ambra’s plans call for a direct connection from the proposed hotel into the train station, which will be connected by an elevated walkway to the airport.

Elsewhere along Jefferson Boulevard, developer Paramount Properties recently built a 75,000-square-foot office building at 300 Jefferson, outside the station district.

And there is Integlia’s $24 million Jefferson Gateway complex, about a quarter-mile south of the train station.

Free parking and Class A rent that’s cheaper than in the capital city were both big selling points, as was being close to the Airport Connector to Interstate 95.

Integlia’s tenants, a mix of businesses such as law firms and insurance agencies, have little need for rail and airport access, he said. “They have their phones and their Internet.”

Except for those projects abutting the train station, Integlia said he believed getting to other areas along the corridor wouldn’t be convenient for travelers arriving at the station. “There’s no centralized business district,” he said.

Still, Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian is convinced that the combination of runways, rails and roadways will make the area between Jefferson Boulevard and Post Road prime commercial real estate in the future.

“It all comes together there,” said the mayor. “That will be the attraction.” •

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